Celebrating a women's rights pioneer

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ONE BLEAK November morning, a funeral cortège wound its way across the windblown Kinmount estate in Dumfriesshire to a private burial ground. At an unmarked spot and in accordance with her instructions, Lady Florence Dixie - poet, travel writer, champion of women's rights and animal welfare - was laid to rest with no religious ceremony.

Florence and her twin James Douglas were born on 25 May 1855, the last children of Archibald the 7th Marquis of Queensberry and Caroline his disillusioned wife. The twins were inseparable but it was an unequal partnership.

The headstrong Florrie organised their lives while the indolent Jim followed. When they were age three their father met with a bizarre shooting accident widely rumoured to be suicide. Their mother responded by converting to Catholicism and faced with the wrath of her mother-in-law, the Protestant Dowager Marchioness of Queensberry, she fled to France. Further turmoil followed.

Reunited in Scotland, news arrived that the twins' brother Francis had died in a climbing accident. The distraught Caroline once again hauled the eight year olds around Europe.

Unsettled and unhappy, Florence developed a need to travel that lasted into adulthood. On the shores of Lake Geneva, Bulwer Lytton spotted her sadness, inspiring him to write a poem, Little Florrie Douglas. Forty years later, Florrie dedicated her own book of poetry, Songs of a Child, to Lytton.Florence probably met Sir Alexander Beaumont "Beau" Churchill, 11th Baronet Dixie, on the hunting field. He displayed an uncanny similarity to Jim - weak, irresolute and addicted to gambling and drinking. They married, moving to the family seat of Bosworth Hall in Leicestershire. Two sons – John and Albert - were born but Florrie soon grew bored and organised a trip to Patagonia accompanied by Beau and Jim (she left the children behind in the care of a nanny). The only woman on the journey, she excelled in the excitement and returned to write a best-selling travel book on the South American region, Across Patagonia.

Florrie then planned an expedition to the Arctic but there was a problem – the family were broke. In 1879 she gained a commission as war correspondent for London's Morning Post covering the Zulu wars. Arriving too late, she justified her visit by interviewing the defeated King Cetswayo. Impressed by his dignity she returned home to successfully campaign for his re-instatement. Her book Land of Misfortune followed, but its success did not provide sufficient means to save Bosworth Hall. The home was sold and the family moved to Windsor.

With an Irish grandmother, Florrie now embraced the cause of Irish Home Rule. Vociferously criticising the methods of the Irish Land League – which inspired and assisted Scotland's crofters in their struggle to obtain security of tenure - she was attacked by "Fenians" and stabbed. Queen Victoria at nearby Windsor Castle sent her ghillie John Brown to investigate. Unfortunately he caught a chill and died, causing the Queen to blame Florence for his demise.

Once more Florrie and Beau were broke. With her mother, Florence returned to her birthplace - the dower house on the Kinmount estate. Jim announced his intention to marry but the delight was short-lived. Deprived of his sister's presence he soon showed signs of mental illness. On 4 May 1891, his body was found in a London hotel. He had cut his throat.

Florrie threw herself into good causes, conducting a heated correspondence against riding side-saddle and devising her own form of dress. She wrote passionately on the evils of hunting and became a vegetarian. Two books - The Two Castaways and Gloriana expounded her views on the role of women.

Interviewed for the Women's Penny Paper, the reporter concluded that she was made of "heroic stuff that knows not what defeat means."

Family troubles returned. In 1893 the intimate and salacious details of her nephew Lord Alfred Douglas's affair with Oscar Wilde filled the press, and a year later her other nephew, Lord Francis Douglas died in a shooting "accident" horribly reminiscent of his grandfather's.

Disillusioned and crippled with arthritis, Florence died aged 50. She is not totally forgotten however for her name still graces a remote hotel in Chile - the Lady Florence Dixie.

Jan Toms is a novelist writing as Janet Mary Tomson. Her

last book The Midwillow Martyrs, inspired by the events at Tolpuddle, is

published by Robert Hale. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society.